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Tipping the scales of justice 

I can't stand it when someone says that there's nothing to write about, because there's always something to write about. Right now, for instance, at this very moment, some prominent city leader is making a very bad and potentially illegal decision that would make a fantastic topic to write about, only I don’t know what it is. That's the real problem: There's plenty to write about, I just don't know it all. Yet.

And lo and behold, even as I typed that first paragraph just to take up space because I really didn't have anything to write about, I received an e-mail from the always alert and verbose Don Morris, a Pismo Beach resident who wanted to tell me about some recent news. I was hoping for an e-mail about some councilperson caught taking illegal funds to pay off a blackmailer who had compromising photos involving another councilperson — and maybe a goat — but I'm on deadline, so I decided to settle for Don's account of a recent coffee shop robbery.

“It was a usual busy morning at the Steaming Bean Coffee Shop on Shell Beach Road in Shell Beach when the theft occurred,� Don wrote, presumably in Shell Beach. “ … a man, posing as a customer, stuck his hand into the tip jar and stole $21.00.�

The rest of the story reads like a very watered down detective tale, like Raymond Chandler tried to write a short story on one of his really off days: One of the shop employees finally penetrated the man’s cunning “customer� disguise, probably because he wasn’t actually buying something, which most customers do. He was stealing something, which is what stealers do.

Exposed, the thief ran out the door, and several customers chased him into the street where they “detained and restrained� him. Other customers blocked traffic so nobody would get run over. The police came, Don reported, and booked the transient into county jail on a charge of petty theft.

Pismo Beach Police Chief Joe Cortez, apparently reflecting on the day’s events, said that stealing someone’s tips is a classless act. But it really isn’t when you think about it. Stealing someone’s tips is a very classful act, especially when the thief is a member of the lowest class around, the class that tends to get wet when it rains because cardboard boxes generally aren’t prized for their waterproof siding.

A business executive stealing from a tip jar would be tacky and classless. Business executives are not typically desperate for dry clothes and something to fill their stomachs other than rummaged pizza crusts and dog food, so snitching some bills and change off a counter would be a true petty theft. Embezzling is more an executive’s style, and even then it’s usually for the thrill of it. Or to cover gambling debts. Or to buy more goats. Or to pay off blackmailers.

This homeless man was no business executive. He may also be no Jean Valjean breaking a windowpane to steal bread and feed his starving family, but he’s no John Gotti either, to be taken down by any means — in the middle of a busy road, if necessary.

I hate those tip jars anyway. At restaurants and bars, I always force someone I came with to leave a tip on the table because it’s the polite thing to do. It’s expected. If you don’t leave a tip or make someone with you leave a tip, you’re a lousy, cheap jerk.

At a coffee shop, I want good, inexpensive coffee, which is why I avoid Starbucks, which has neither. At a coffee shop, I also want to pay and leave, or occasionally pay and sit and sip my coffee while pretending to read the New York Times in case I can fool someone into thinking I’m good looking and intellectual.

I don’t want to stand there and calculate 15 percent of my bill, which would probably work out to about 48 cents. I don’t like being made to feel guilty that I’m not dropping my change into a jar with a message like: “Tipping isn’t a city in China.� Soon, grocery clerks will want tips for scanning your items.

You know, I’m really not blaming any of the coffee shop people for wanting their stolen money back. I’m not even really upset that they’re asking for a little more money than the probably just-above minimum wage that they’re earning. I just get funny around Easter when everybody asks me to go to church and think about Bible-type things and renewal and revival and resurrection. I think I remember from Sunday school that sometime or another, Jesus said that we wouldn’t always have him around, but we’d always have the poor.

Here it is, more than 2,000 years later if you believe all that, and he was right. It’s like he could see the future or something.

Here’s a tip from me: Next time you buy a scone or a latte, make sure you give your change to someone who really needs it.

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